Lawyers have not been well-regarded since the days before Shakespeare suggested that we should all be executed. The lament has been the same; we do too little, charge too much. We foment dispute. But, as much as the American public ranks lawyers right down there with Congressmen and carjackers when it comes to popularity, the short of it is that we have more lawyers than ever before and we are told that demand is projected to continue to increase in the years ahead.
Divorce lawyers reside in a special place in Lawyer Hell. The usual lament is that we break apart families and cause unnecessary conflict at enormous financial and human cost. This is not a defense of all lawyers. It is not a defense of divorce lawyers either. Even we can’t defend some of our kind. They trouble us too.
But the plain truth is that divorce is a soft center of doing business wrapped in a hard coating of pure emotion. Even making custody decisions is a form of doing business. There are relative merits of deciding how many days a month a child spends with each parent and where the child should go to school; whether after school time should be spent practicing football or flute. Intact families make these decisions every day; not always gracefully, but rarely with the need to call in the execrable “lawyers”. But once a couple separates, parents often tend to focus on their “rights” in contrast with their children’s’ “interests”. A couple years ago, a judge dispatched my opposing counsel and me with an admonition that the conflict du jour had to be settled. That night was Father’s mid-week visit. He saw that night as inviolate because he cherished his time with his kids. Mother noted that the night in question was their son’s night to meet and greet a local minor league baseball team and warm up in a real stadium. Father said his schedule wouldn’t allow him to get to the game and therefore he wanted the children to be told to forget it. When we sat down with our clients, my first question was what each parent thought the children wanted most. We got the two conflicting answers; both wrong. Ask any judge what they get out of interviews with children in custody cases and they will tell you to a person: “I want the fighting to end.” With little kids the refrain is even more sad. They dream their parents will get back together. But they are even more frayed by parental conflict because little kids see themselves as the center of the world and they think they are responsible for everything that happens.
So, if you want to save yourself some money. Stop. Look. Listen. What are you really fighting about? Is there a way to compromise this? Perhaps one child goes to the baseball game with Mom. The other child has a special night where she has all of her father’s attention. Perhaps a make-up night would solve the problem although make-ups are the kinds of things that are best confirmed in writing in advance as many parents have difficulty recalling that they owe the other parent a make-up. If there is no compromise; put your fanciest robe on and pretend you are the judge. If you had to decide; what would you do? Think about this as well. Suppose you were the former starting running back for Ohio State. You want your kid to enjoy what you had, so you justifiably sign him up to play football. But alas, you married the sissy woman who abhors all forms of contact sport. Of course your son should play football. But did it ever occur to you how much angst you are creating for your ex and, more importantly, for your kid when his mother spends weeks in terror that her child will be the one carried from the field and put into the ambulance. Does that make you wrong? No, but thinking about how your kids are enmeshed in these conflicts and trying to help them through them is one of the healthiest things you can do to make their childhood special even after it has been marred by a separation.
Does this mean you should always turn the other cheek. Not really. We all know that parents do try to take advantage of each other and sometimes they must be held to account. But when you spend an afternoon watching two intelligent adults fight for three hours over who got the odd day in a 73 day summer vacation (and a noon day transition on the odd day was “out of the question”) you realize that clients can lose all sense of perspective. And when they do, kids are hurt; deeply. So save yourself some money by making certain that you pick your fights carefully and make certain that when you do fight, it is for the child’s interests and not so much for the vindication of your rights.
Now onto Lesson 2. There is lots of free advice out there. It used to just be from friends and family. But, now we have the internet. You can look up the law or you can log on and chat with 500 other people each of whom thinks their ex-spouse is screwing them. And you can have lunch with your neighbor, the patent lawyer who took Family Law 101 fifteen years ago when he was in law school. Or you can check in with your dry cleaner who just got divorced three years ago. Her lawyer made it so her husband only saw the children in leap years in months when there was five weekends and not four. How come your lawyer can’t get the same results?
These folks are well meaning. They want to feel part of a community and so do you. But seriously, what do they really know about your family, your ex, your kids and the current state of the judicial system that will decide your case if you can’t settle it? Even people in positions of some expertise often make mistakes. We just had a client contact us. Her former husband has been acting strangely. People who know them both have made comments to her that he has become erratic. She then learned that he was trying to order an assault rifle over the internet. When she contacted us she had already been in contact with local police. They told her she needed to sue her ex for Protection from Abuse. When we reviewed the facts, she certainly had a reason to be alarmed. But there had been no threat to her or the children, no stalking, no harassment or any of the other components required to make out a claim for Protection from Abuse. Of course, she challenged us. The police told her to file. But, in this instance the officer was not aware of the formal requirements of the law.
Free advice does come without a price. But you often get what you pay for. And time spent telling your lawyer the custodial arrangement your dry cleaner secured or how your poker partner got off from contributing to private school is time that you will pay for with very little result. If you think your attorney is inexperienced or if he/she is indifferent to your concerns, then spend a few bucks and get a real second opinion from another specialist in the field. Family law matters involve your children and your money; two things that people like to keep close. They merit getting expert help. But when you think you know more about the law than your lawyer, you are either poorly represented or deluded by misinformation or your own sense of entitlement. If it is the former, get another lawyer. If it is the latter, get a grip and realize that as evil as Shakespeare said we are, we are the ones who are going to walk with you through the jungle called divorce.